“Myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation. Regions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic magic ring of myth.”
– Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces
A few years ago I got a book for my birthday from my parents about the life and work of the comic artist Alex Ross. It was called Mythology. They are both great art fans, so I presume they picked it because of the fine art quality of his illustrations, or perhaps because it had been favourably reviewed in whichever left-leaning broadsheet they were reading at the time. Whatever the reason, I remain eternally grateful that they made that probably random purchase as that biography came to fundamentally change not only my view on what comic art could or should be, but what the entire concept of superheroes means to pop culture and our society in general.
Through the eyes of a child, these characters and stories feel very much ‘of the moment.’ Incidental and individual. I used to travel back and fourth from my local library borrowing as many comics as I could. It didn’t matter who the character was, who the writer or artist was, which year it was from, which publisher it was, or even if they were age-appropriate or gender-targeted. It was just the love and curiosity of discovering a new world for the first time, but a world that I felt was somehow aimed at me alone. Mythology changed everything. Suddenly, the bold and zappy characters I loved from the DC, Marvel and Dark Horse universes had a weight behind them: a sense of history, a sense of evolution, a sense of myth. Like the fables and fairy tales of old, I discovered that these characters had been passed down through generations of storytellers charged with the task of keeping their legends alive and preserving their histories.
“A glorious place, a glorious age, I tell you! A very Neon Renaissance – And the myths that actually touched you at the time – not Hercules, Orpheus, Ulysses and Aeneas – but Superman, Captain Marvel, Batman.”
– Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
Although Ross has worked for nearly every publisher out there, Mythology focuses on his work for DC, whose characters sparked his initial love for the industry as a kid (same for me, too.) Whilst Marvel comics’ universe can be broadly characterised by modern, witty, street-wise and usually ‘accidental’ heroes, DC’s universe – as the only publisher with claim to the originals – is populated by characters of inherent myth, purpose, and God-like stature.
Superman, more than any other character in the DC or any other comic book universe, embodies these qualities. He is our modern-day Hercules. He is biblical, mythological, and iconic. He is the original, the most enduring, and without parallel. No surprise then that he is also Ross’ favourite.
“I very much wanted to create the new standard by which Superman should be drawn […] Of course, that didn’t happen […] Superman should never reflect any fashionable trend or other affection of a specific era – hairstyle, speech patterns, etc. He is beyond that. He is out of time.”
– Alex Ross, Mythology
With all this in mind, let’s turn to his cinematic appearances. I must confess first of all that I am a huge Christopher Reeves fan, and he will forever cast a very long and caped shadow over any actor having to follow in his red-booted footsteps. This is both impressive and unfortunate for subsequent films. Even if you are not fond of the original Superman films in the 1970s – 1980s that he starred in, I don’t think you can deny how brilliantly Reeves portrayed not only Supes, but also his alter ego Clark Kent. Bumbling, awkward, but deeply well meaning and sweet, Reeves pitched his performance as the Daily Planet reporter with superb comic timing. It also made his transformation into the man of steel that much more dramatic. Right down to the little greased curl of hair on his forehead and that glint in his blue eyes, he was completely believable. The first two of that series of films certainly capture the spirit of the comics faithfully whilst expanding their appeal out to the wider less comic-literate audience. They set the benchmark right from the start to which all superhero movies should strive to reach.
Now let’s skip forward to 2006 and the release of Superman Returns. I have to say I felt negatively about this film before it had even been released. It took director Bryan Singer away from the X-Men movie franchise that I loved so much, and the result was an unforgivable mess of a finale to an otherwise great trilogy. However, when finally seeing the film, I understood why he had chosen to jump ship. Returns is bright, bold, and…apparently controversial. I have had countless arguments with friends and seen many, many angry reviews about it, and honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever understand why. I really love that film, and while everyone is of course welcome to hold his or her own opinion, I almost get a little tired of continually having to defend it. The hatred for it seems to be grounded in several things: one is that it pays homage to the original film series too much; another is the casting of Brandon Routh as Supes, but perhaps the biggest complaint is the love-triangle between Supes, Lois Lane, and Lois Lane’s husband Richard, as well as with their son. And by ‘their,’ I very much mean all three characters, as the film would have us ponder over.
As a fan of the original series (well, the first two at least…) I wasn’t bothered by the unmistakable nods that Singer gave to them. After all, there is a significant gap between 2006 and 1987 when Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was released (the less said about that one, the better) so I don’t think it was unreasonable to remind the audience of not only the history of the character, but also of his history as a pop cultural icon. In our postmodern landscape, self-referential stories are as much about depicting the context of a myth as they are about its content. As for the casting, I will begrudgingly agree that Routh is unfortunately too youthful-looking for the timeline that the film sets itself in. This is a film that is a sequel, not a reboot, as the premise is that Superman has returned to Earth after he left to search for rumoured remains of Krypton at the end of Quest for Peace. Therefore, this is the same Superman from the Reeves movie-verse. It is also true that Routh is eerily similar looking to Reeves…I mean, like, spookily similar. However, the themes of returning, of time passing, of change, and of maturity, calls for a slightly more weathered and older-looking Supes, which Routh’s pretty-boy face just doesn’t possess. That being said, this is merely a cosmetic weakness. I genuinely thought his performance as Supes was believable and empathetic whilst still retaining that inherent weight of otherworldly strength, wisdom, and conviction that we associate with the character. In fact, with the exception of Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane (ugh), the rest of the cast is also stellar – especially Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor, and Parker Posey as his comical sidekick with her sneering red lips and yappy fluffy puppies.
That leaves us with the final controversial element: the plot. How can there be a Superman movie where Lois is married to another guy? How can Superman have a son? Again, I find myself referring back to Mythology:
“Writer Jerry Siegal and artist Joe Shuster’s creation was nothing less than the Golem of their time – an all powerful mythic being brought into our realm to solve our injustices, to defend the defenceless. In this sense, Ross takes the next logical step by rendering him in what appears to be actual flesh and blood […] The effect was like finally meeting someone you’d only ever heard about.”
– Chip Kidd, Mythology
In this quote, and in the plot of Returns, the interesting tension between myth and man is revealed, as well as the overarching rule in storytelling that a myth must always evolve or be re-examined to survive. How do we connect with a man who is essentially a God? By giving him human frailties. In flesh and blood Kal-El is an enhanced Kryptonian warrior, but in spirit and emotion, Clark Kent is a sensitive and loving human. He is an alien immigrant living the life of an American man, and as such, it makes sense that his cultural heritage and destiny conflict with his sense of adopted human purpose. His militaristic call of duty forces him to abandon his human life with Lois, and in the intervening years, like a war widow, she is forced to move on and continue with her own life – not unreasonable, really. Upon his return, Superman finds that his world is not as he left it. He has lost a companion, yet gained a son. I found this idea radical and refreshing and would have loved to see where Singer would have taken it should he have had the chance to helm a sequel. ‘The son becomes the father, and the father becomes the son,’ Routh as Superman whispers to his sleeping son, echoing the words of his birth father, Jor-El. This is very much the heart of the film: the preservation and transference of legacy.
Whilst I have been speaking of the ‘weight’ of his myth, that is not to say that the world of Superman is a particularly ‘heavy’ one. On the contrary, Metropolis is a city of gleaming urban modernity from the 1930s, and Superman – who draws power from the sun – is a being of supreme lightness in every sense of the word: Both in his charming charisma and unwavering belief that humanity is a species capable of great and good deeds, and, physically, in his soaring and effortless movement through the clouds. In Superman Returns, through Singer’s signature vibrant palette, snappy dialogue, and tentative inter-character relationships, this lightness undeniably shines through.
This leads me on to the comparatively darker tones of 2013’s Man of Steel. First of all – I enjoyed this film. Unlike Returns, this film was very much a reboot of Supes’ cinematic legacy, and I was certainly very excited for it before its release, especially knowing that Christopher Nolan would be heavily involved in its production. It’s almost a given that everyone is a Christopher Nolan fan. The man is a master of the cerebral blockbuster, which sadly cannot be said for his partner on Man of Steel, Zack Snyder. Certainly though, Snyder is a great stylist, and luckily their partnership on the film seemed to work well – Snyder’s lightening-fast and heavily-saturated visuals tempered by Nolan’s Arthouse sensibilities in storytelling and mood. Again, it does well in establishing the mythic qualities of him as a superhero and counterbalancing them with the relatable qualities of him as a real man.
I recall the trailer – a young boy racing through the cornfields of Smallville with a red cape fluttering behind him. It was so subtle and so poignant that I distinctly remember a fluttering in my stomach akin to what I felt during that after-credits scene in Iron Man when Samuel L. Jackson uttered the words ‘Avengers Initiative.’ I also really loved the opening act set on Krypton – we have never been able to really spend a long time on his home planet in his cinematic outings, so this was a real treat for hardcore fans.
The cast is also strong: Henry Cavill is powerful and convincing, yet weakened and emotional where he needs to be; Amy Adams (who I adore) makes a pretty good Lois Lane, and Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner are believable as Kal-El/Clark Kent’s fathers. Michael Shannon is perfect casting as General Zod: cold, imposing, and unforgiving, he wears that Kryptonian armour like he was born into it. (The only thing that lets him down is some occasionally clunky dialogue.) What I was surprised about in terms of the audience’s reception of this film was how uncontroversial everyone seemed to find it.
Unlike the waves of animosity aimed towards the ‘secret son’ plot of Returns, the most controversial part of Man of Steel – the death of Zod – has not attracted any of the same kind of hatred that I expected it would. This is not the first time Superman has been forced to take a life in his character’s long history. However, it still shocked me to see it. After an epic and ridiculously destructive brawl, a quick and brutal snap of the General’s neck ended it all. Superman let out a cry of anguish and dismay at what he had done, and what he had had to endure. It haunted me for days after seeing it. Not because I am hyper squeamish or adverse to violence, but because I couldn’t work out how I felt about it. Or about Man of Steel in general. Was it totally brilliant or just had moments of brilliance? Was it the right direction for a reboot? Clearly, the decision to bring Nolan on to supervise proceedings was due to Warner Bros.’ trust in him to produce a great superhero film after the phenomenal success of his Dark Knight trilogy, and what made this trilogy so spectacular was his ability to rightly ground Gotham in gritty reality without losing the comic book larger-than-life punch of the characters. Stylistically, the Arthouse aesthetic he brought to the Batman films was something he was expected to bring the Man of Steel, and evidentially did.
Personally, I see no problem with DC films to start being more stylistically linked as this enables the audience to connect the dots between different character’s universes better, as well as separate them from the colourful and witty Marvel style. It is almost as though the two are attempting to create differing auteur personas in their approach to on-screen adaptations, which makes sense from a marketing perspective. My only issue with this being done to Superman and Batman is specific to their characters as a duo.
I wrote a blog a while back entitled Comic Lore: Batman, Superman, and The Third Identity in which I discussed why these two opposite sides of the same superhero coin are both inextricably linked by their polar disparity. To summarise: whereas Batman is a being of darkness and unflinching realism, Superman is a being of light and romantic fantasy. Every single subsequent superhero ever created is an ancestor of one of them. In this respect, I feel that Nolan’s darker brushstrokes didn’t fit as well into the mythology of Superman as they way that they fit with the mythology of Batman. In recent years there has been a resurgence in all things gothic and existential, which – with the dark knight as my favourite superhero – I am a great fan of. However, there is an often-misplaced expectation that if something is ‘dark’ it must be automatically more mature and intellectually weightier than something comparably ‘light.’ Compared to Superman Returns, the action in Man of Steel is more brutal, the characters seem older and more grounded, and the style is faster and bleaker. The whole thing is heavier and grittier and the level of devastation to both Metropolis and Superman’s usually sunny disposition is far greater. The idea that Superman is forced to take a life to save the innocent is supposedly a more mature theme that what has come before. This is how Snyder and Nolan think that his myth must stay relevant in the current zeitgeist.
But, although lighter in temperament and aesthetic, the theme of eternal struggle between myth and man and the wedge that this drives between Clark and Lois, as well as the painful estrangement from his son, should not be discounted as an equally mature and logical evolution of the Superman franchise and of his character. The love triangle dynamic of that film is realistically tense and complex, with no ethically right or wrong way to solve things. Lois’ heart is split both ways, and Clark must bitterly respect this as the noble personality he is. The glimmer of hope comes from the revelation that her son is also his. Even if they cannot be together romantically, they are bonded forever by this physical result of their past relationship. This subplot, to me, is incredibly adult and oddly domestic for what we expect from most superhero films. It is the interruption of modern life in an otherwise romantic and soaring myth. The neck-snapping moment from Man of Steel is still shocking and interesting, but it is just that: a moment.
“I often wonder, Clark: Do you know what you are? You are the original myth. The one we’ll always believe. What would we ever do without you?”
– Batman, The Trust, Chip Kidd & Alex Ross
Myth vs. man, the fact is, one cannot live without the other – Superman cannot live without Clark Kent. The myth of the God-like saviour collides with the myth of the American dream. This was one of the great successes of Reeves’ portrayal: he understood and embodied both the polarity and unity of Kal-El’s alter egos. Alex Ross also understands this. In his unique, hyperreal painterly style, we can see every wrinkle on Superman’s forehead, every fold in his cape, and count the lashes around his eyes, and yet, the sweeping dynamism of him in flight, the proud way he holds his head up, the clenching of his wrists as he bursts through metal, and the effortless strength he uses to rescue victims from beneath fallen buildings also shines through. We believe in him as a man and we believe in the myth and fantasy he exudes. If one is overplayed at the expense of the other, something crucial is lost. This is the balance that any live-action interpretation should strive to achieve, and I look forward with baited breath to the next instalment.
Thanks for reading! 🙂
3 thoughts on “Superman Returns & Man of Steel: Man vs. Myth”
Wow! This is definately the most articulate piece I’ve read about Superman in along time. The link between mythology is great, and despite being 80 odd years old Superman really is modern mythology.
I also liked Superan Returns and did think that the evolution of the characters made sense as Superman had been gone for so long and him trying to once again find himself in a world that had learned to love without him was a great dilemma for the character. I did like Routh’s portrayal of both Clark Kent and Superman (really looking forward to him appearing in Arrow), though making him a bit older might have worked (one of the reasons he was cast was because he looked so similar to Reeves).
However I didn’t like Man of Steel. I think it was more controversial than you think. The main reason alot of people had a gripe with it was the killing of Zod, but for me, there were so many other thing swrong with it. The darker tone doesn’t fit with Superman. As you say he’s a beacon of light an hope. Man of Steel didn’t have that as there was no one there really to get hope from Superman. While Kevin Costner was good, his dialogue was terrible and was there really to only create a conflict that was relaly badly set up and could have been done so much better (there’s no way I would believe his dad would have told him to let a bus load of kids die).
Anyway absolutely marvellous piece. Really enjoyed reading it.
Thank you! I’m glad you liked my article 🙂
Referring what you said about the “darker tone doesn’t fitting with Superman” I’ve been thinking a lot lately about comic book adaptations on the big screen and I think the problem has a lot to do with both compressing a HUGE amount of character history and baggage and multiple interpretations into an hour-and-a-half story, and with the friendly rivalry between DC and Marvel. Both companies are set on distinguishing themselves recognisably for the wider market of non-comic book literate fans – which I agree makes sense from a marketing perspective – and in doing so they are almost adopting an distinctive tone running through their films in the past few years: Marvel films are generally lighter and more humorous and DC films are generally darker and grittier. Unfortunately this ‘one size fits all’ approach that works for distinguishing them as companies doesn’t work for distinguishing between their characters so well, and we end up with Man of Steel – a Superman film that feels like Batman film (although maybe the Nolan influence might be the reason for that.)
The biggest exception I can think of is probably the X-Men films, which have served to show to the darker side of the Marvel universe very well.
I better stop there or this comment will turn into a whole separate blog post!
Thanks again for the comment 🙂
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I have that MYTHOLOGY book too. It is great. And I feel that somewhere in between the boring Superman Returns (where Superman is a creepy stalker) and the ultra-violent Man of Steel (where Superman is killer) there is one fantastic Superman movie just waiting to be made.